SEBRING — Even into his early and mid-90’s, Bert Harris Jr. still would get out into his groves on a tractor, tending to some of the work he’d done most of his life.
Family friend and associate Ray Royce said the elder Harris often said that was one of the places he was happiest. He wasn’t out in his groves on Sunday, Royce said, but was at home with family when he died. He was 99 and a half years old.
Harris, for whom the Highlands County Bert J. Harris Jr. Agricultural Center was named, was a regular figure in central Florida agriculture, a 1999 inductee into the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame and a champion of private property rights in Florida.
Born Dec. 9, 1919, in Warwick, Georgia. His family moved to Arcadia, Florida, where Harris graduated high school.
He was later a 1943 honors graduate of the University of Florida with a degree in agriculture.
Harris served as a corporal in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Pacific Theater during World War II. After discharge in 1946, he married Elna James and they settled in Lake Placid.
Back home, he was both a citrus grower and rancher and owner of Rainbow Caladiums, and also worked for the Florida’s Cooperative Extension Service, serving as the Highlands County Agricultural Agent until retirement in 1975.
He was also an independent farming consultant prior to his election as a Democrat to the Florida State House of Representatives, where he served from 1982 to 1996 for District 77.
Harris made promotion of agriculture his life’s avocation and worked on passage of private property rights protections. The resulting bill, the “Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Rights Protection Act” of 1995, protects landowners and allows them to ask for relief when they feel their land property rights have been adversely affected by government intervention or interference.
The elder Harris also sponsored legislation to settle citrus canker cases, passed legislation to prevent the disparagement of perishable food products and worked to meet the Greenbelt Law, which taxes agricultural lands based on the current “use” value of the property versus its development value — which is typically higher.
His son, Bert J. Harris III, said that was his father’s greatest public legacy.
His daughter, Susan Bruener, said her daughter’s career as an agronomy service representative for Syngenta Corporation is the legacy of both sides of her family and the passion they’ve shown for agriculture.
Both Harris III and Bruener said their dad was devoted to family — going so far as to plant groves at age 80 when he would never see the harvest.
Father and grandfather worked the family land with cattle in 1956 and then in 1982, the father and son started working it as citrus groves.
“It was very rewarding working in agriculture with my dad,” Harris III said.
“He was such an open book,” Bruener said. “He loved his family and spending time with his family.”
She also said he never met a stranger, as cliche as it may sound.
“Oh my gosh, that is really descriptive of my dad,” Bruener said. “If he was standing in a line somewhere, he’s start talking to people in line.”
“I would think one of the main things is that my father liked people and enjoyed working with people,” Harris III said. “He had a good sense of humor and always cracked a joke.”
Royce, executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association, has worked with both the elder and younger Harris as members of the association board of directors. Royce recalls the elder Harris as a very inspirational member of the community who was active in his family, church and community, and who mentored future extension agents, including recent Citrus Hall of Fame inductee Tim Hurner.
“He will be sorely missed,” Royce said. “He was a good role model on how to put priorities in order and how to treat other people.”
Those who worked with him, Royce said, have gone on to become successful community advocates and leaders.
“He and I had many conversations in regard to the [citrus growers] association,” Royce said. “I took any thoughts that he shared with me to be very thoughtful, reasoned and something I should give the utmost credence to.”
Bert leaves his wife of 73 years, Elna; son Bert J. Harris III, and his wife Lisa of Lake Placid; daughter Susan Harris Bruener and her husband Peter of Douglass, Texas; granddaughters Amy Weaver Setzer, Christine Weaver May, and Katherine Elizabeth Harris; brother-in law Jerry James and wife Nancy; seven nieces and nephews; and 13 great-nieces and nephews.
He was predeceased by his parents, Bert and Alma Harris, and sister Carol Hunt.
Visitation will be at 10 a.m. Thursday with the funeral service at 11 a.m. at a location to be decided.
For now, public officials have lowered flags to half staff at public buildings.